Monday morning and there’s one donut less than there should be.
Keen observers note the reduced mass straight away but stay silent, because saying, “Hey, is that only seven donuts?” would betray their donut experience. It’s not great for your career to be known as the person who can spot the difference between seven and eight donuts at a glance. Everyone studiously avoids mentioning the missing donut until Roger turns up and sees the empty plate.
Roger says, “Where’s my donut?”
Elizabeth dabs at her mouth with a piece of paper towel. “I only took one.” Roger looks at her. “What?”
“That’s a defensive response. I asked where my donut was. You tell me how many you took. What does that say?”
“It says I took one donut,” Elizabeth says, rattled.
“But I didn’t ask how many donuts you took. Naturally I would assume you took one. But by taking the trouble to articulate that assumption, you imply, deliberately or otherwise, that it’s debatable.”
Elizabeth puts her hands on her hips. Elizabeth has shoulder-length brown hair that looks as if it has been cut with a straight razor and a mouth that could have done the cutting. Elizabeth is smart, ruthless, and emotionally damaged; that is, she is a sales representative. If Elizabeth’s brain was a person, it would have scars, tattoos, and be missing one eye. If you saw it coming, you would cross the street. “Do you want to ask me a question, Roger? Do you want to ask if I took your donut?”
Roger shrugs and begins filling his coffee cup. “I don’t care about a missing donut. I just wonder why someone felt the need to take two.”
“I don’t think anyone took two. Holly and I were here first. Catering must have shorted us.”
“That’s right,” Holly says.
Roger looks at her. Holly is a sales assistant, so has no right to speak up at this point. Freddy, also a sales assistant, is wisely keeping his mouth shut. But then, Freddy is halfway through his own donut and has a mouthful. He is postponing swallowing because he’s afraid he’ll make an embarrassing gulping noise.
Holly wilts under Roger’s stare. Elizabeth says, “Roger, we saw Catering put them out. We were standing right here.”
“Oh,” Roger says. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were staking out the donuts.”
“We weren’t staking them out. We just happened to be here.”
“Look, it doesn’t bother me one way or the other.” Roger picks up a sachet of sugar and shakes it as if it’s in need of discipline: wap-wap-wap-wap. “I just find it interesting that donuts are so important to some people that they stand around waiting for them. I didn’t know donuts were the reason we show up here every day. I’m sorry, I thought the idea was to improve shareholder value.”
Elizabeth says, “Roger, how about you talk to Catering before you start making accusations. All right?” She walks off. Holly trails her like a remora.
Roger watches her go, amused. “Trust Elizabeth to get upset over a donut.”
Freddy swallows. “Yeah,” he says.
The Zephyr Holdings building sits nestled among the skyscrapers of Seattle’s Madison Street like a tall, gray brick. It is bereft of distinguishing features. You could argue that it has a certain neutral, understated charm, but only if you are willing to apply the same logic to prisons and 1970s Volvos. It is a building designed by committee: all they have been able to agree is that it should be rectangular, have windows, and not fall over.
Perched at the top is the word ZEPHYR and the corporate logo, which is an orange and black polygon of foggy intent. Orange and black crops up a lot at Zephyr Holdings; you can’t walk down a corridor, visit the bathroom, or catch an elevator without being reminded whose turf you’re on. There’s a logo on each panel of the lobby’s sliding glass doors, and when you’re through them, logos adorn the walls at intervals of three feet. A water feature of dark stones and well-tended ferns is a small, logo-free oasis, but to make up for this, the reception desk is practically a logo with a sign-in sheet on top. Even under soft, recessed lighting, the reception desk delivers such a blast of orange to your retinas that long after you’ve left it behind, you can still see it when you blink.
On one side of the lobby is an arrangement of comfortable chairs and low-slung tables, where visitors browse Zephyr’s marketing literature while waiting for whomever they’re meeting. Sitting there with his hands in his lap is young, fresh-faced Stephen Jones. His eyes are bright. His suit glows. His sandy-brown hair contains so much styling mousse it’s a fire risk, and his shoes are black mirrors. This is his first day. So far he’s been shown a series of corporate induction videos, one of which contained glowing buzzwords like TEAMWORK and BEST PRACTICE rocketing at the screen, and another of which featured actors from the late 1980s talking about customer service. Now he is waiting for someone from the Training Sales department to come and collect him.
He accidentally catches the eye of the receptionist for about the fourteenth time and they both smile and look away. The receptionist is GRETEL MONADNOCK, according to her nameplate; she’s quite young, has long, lustrous brown hair, and sits on the right side of the desk. On the left a nameplate says EVE JANTISS, but Eve herself is absent. He is a little disappointed about this, because while Gretel is nice, when he was here for his job interview and first saw Eve, he almost dropped his new briefcase. It would be an exaggeration to say he took a job at Zephyr because of the beauty of its receptionist, but during his interview he was very enthusiastic.
He looks at his watch. It is eleven o’clock. His videos finished twenty minutes ago. He folds his hands back in his lap.
“I’ll try them again,” Gretel says. She smiles sympathetically. “Ah... sorry, it’s going to voicemail again.”
“Oh. Maybe something urgent came up.”
“Ye-e-e-s.” She seems unsure if he is joking. “Probably.”
“The thing you have to remember,” Roger says, “is that it’s all about respect.” Roger has one elbow on Freddy’s cubicle partition wall, his lean frame blocking the entrance. “The donut itself is irrelevant. It’s the lack of respect the theft implies.”
Freddy’s phone trills. He looks at the caller ID screen: reception. “Roger, please, I have to pick up the new grad. They keep calling.”
“Just a moment. This is important.” Roger knows Freddy will wait. Freddy has been a sales assistant for five years. He is quick-witted, inventive, and full of ideas, so long as that’s okay with everybody else. Freddy is a participant. A member. He is happiest when he’s blending in with a crowd. In any group of people, the one you can’t remember is Freddy. He has wriggled so far inside Zephyr Holdings that Roger sometimes has difficulty telling where the company ends and Freddy begins.”I’m explaining why I want you to go to Catering and find out exactly how many donuts they gave us today.”
Desperation enters Freddy’s eyes. “If I get this new grad, he can do it. He’s your assistant.”
Roger ponders this for a moment. “He may not appreciate the need to treat a situation like this delicately.” This means: Keep it from Elizabeth and Holly.
“I’ll tell him. Please, Roger, you’re getting me in trouble with reception.”
“All right. All right.” Roger holds up his palms in surrender. “Go get your graduate, then.”
Roger looks at him sharply. But Freddy is not being disrespectful, Roger realizes; Freddy is just being accurate. “Yes, yes. That’s what I meant.”